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Debra Hamel - Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel - Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel’s "Trying Neaira: the True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece" (Yale University Press, 2003) is an intriguing insight into the life of a woman in 4th century BC, from Corinthian brothel to sex slave through to a relatively harmonious life (minus the court cases) with her long term partner Stephanos of Athens. When your life story can be encapsulated into such a sentence it deserves to be retold to future generations and it is thanks to Hamel’s rigorous analysis of the few available sources that we have access to Neaira (pronounced “neh-EYE-ruh”) and her story. Unfortunately the closest we get to Neaira is through the speeches of others and despite being the centre of both the book and the court case that inspired it she has no voice. This is perhaps inevitable as women were not able to speak in court and respectable Greek women were meant to be kept hidden away from all except male relatives and consequently they are also hidden from historians. The information on Neiara’s life is provided by the speech of the prosecution, an Athenian by the name of Apollodoros the man behind the litigation against Neaira and involved in a lengthy feud with Stephanos. Hamel works through the spin (the speech possesses it in abundance) and picks through the dirt aimed at Neaira and her former life in an attempts to reach the truth. However, rather than being the focus of Hamel’s work Neaira, her trial and the other players involved are used as a springboard into Athenian society and its legal, political and social systems.

The first chapter of Trying Neaira deals with place and time, following Neaira within her working life as a courtesan and introduces the reader to the prevalence of prostitution and its various guises in ancient Greece. The legality and social acceptance of prostitution in ancient Greece seems incongruous to the modern reader when juxtaposed with the limited freedom extended to free female Athenians. Yet, if wishing to learn more about women in this society this acceptance and openness has yielded numerous sources which provided important access to a part of society where women were central figures. Although Hamel is seeking to tell Neaira’s story the emphasis is on the society she existed in and the details we are given are more generic than specific. This is an unavoidable limitation given the available sources but the reader is amply compensated with details of a prostitutes daily life. Who can help but be intrigued by the knowledge that some working girls wore "studs affixed to the soles of their sandals (which) spelled out erotic messages" (Pg. 5) in the sand encouraging men to follow them to more private locations?

In the proceeding chapters Hamel deals with the numerous litigation preceding Neaira’s trial; the amount of which would suggest that both Stephanos and Apollodoros were never far from court. The political manoeuvring and court activity of the men in Neaira’s life is intriguing and the use of Stephanus’ daughter Phanus as a pawn to initiate yet more lawsuits is richly and concisely conveyed. Once again the reader is treated to juicy titbits concerning the seamier side of Athens's courts and the Athenians use for radishes is to be wondered at. The amount of information Hamel packs into this book is testament to her concise prose style and superior knowledge of ancient Greek society and the reader will finish this book amazed at the amount of knowledge they have absorbed.

The triumphs of Debra Hamel’s Trying Neaira are many but, arguably, the most significant is the use of Neaira’s eventful life to embark on an accessible but still comprehensive analysis of Athenian society and its legal system. For those with knowledge of ancient Greece Trying Neaira can only enhance their understanding of Athens legal and social systems. However, perhaps more importantly, Hamel succeeds in producing a work that must surely spark the interest of any newcomer to the subject causing them to delve further into this fascinating society and the position women occupied within it.

Gina Evans © 2005.


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